Naval Warfare

French Navy’s Airbus H160 Helicopter Flies First Search and Rescue (SAR) Mission

French Navy's Airbus H160 Helicopter Flies First Search and Rescue (SAR) Mission
French Navy's Airbus H160 Helicopter Flies First Search and Rescue (SAR) Mission

The French Navy’s newly installed H160 helicopter from Flotille 32F successfully completed its inaugural Search and Rescue (SAR) mission on Sunday, July 23. Tasked by the CROSS Jobourg (regional rescue center) early in the morning, the H160 crew took swift action, lifting off within 30 minutes to search the waters north of the Channel Islands in response to a passenger’s disappearance from a ship traveling between Portsmouth and Jersey. Despite the dedicated two-hour search effort, the missing person was not found. Nevertheless, this milestone mission marks the operational readiness of the Cherbourg detachment, now fully assuming the responsibilities of the former Flotille 33F. Reflecting the flotilla’s motto, “so that others may live,” the H160 will be deeply engaged in public service missions, encompassing search and rescue at sea, medical and sanitary evacuations, maritime traffic protection, and assistance to distressed ships.

On July 20, 2023, the NH90 Caïman Marine helicopter, stationed in Maupertus-sur-Mer, was replaced by the advanced H160 helicopter sourced from Flotille 32F based at the Lanvéoc-Poulmic naval air base (29). In the upcoming weeks, Flotille 32F plans to deploy its new H160 helicopters along the three metropolitan coasts, including Lanvéoc, Hyères, and Cherbourg. The first deployment in the Manche department sees the H160 poised to play a crucial role in rescue, protection, and intervention missions. The H160 FI, a civil version developed through collaboration between the French Navy, Babcock, Airbus Helicopters, and Safran Helicopters Engines, is tailored for maritime search and rescue, boasting a winch, a Euroflir 410 electro-optical system, and a modular cabin allowing for mission-specific configurations. Additionally, it will be certified for night vision goggle flights.

A French Navy H160 interim search and rescue helicopter has flown the type's first operational mission from its base in Cherbourg, on France's northern Cotentin peninsula.
A French Navy H160 interim Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter has flown the type’s first operational mission from its base in Cherbourg, on France’s northern Cotentin peninsula. (Photo by French Navy)

These “sailors in the sky” aboard the H160 are committed to serving the greater good. After seven years of service in Maupertus, the Caiman Marine of the 33F will return to Finistère, resuming its primary focus on air-sea combat missions. Given the retirement of the Alouette III, and the pending arrival of the HIL joint light helicopter Guepard, scheduled for 2029, the Navy opted for a fleet of leased helicopters to fill the gap. This “interim fleet” allows the Caiman Marine and Panther helicopters to concentrate fully on combat missions from the frigates. A portion of this fleet, featuring the Dauphin N3, is destined for operation from helicopter carriers. Meanwhile, the other part, comprising six H160 helicopters, will operate from land to reinforce the SECMAR plots for maritime rescue. With the reception of the first three H160 helicopters, the 32F flotilla regained full activation on June 29, 2023.

The Airbus Helicopters H160, formerly known as X4, represents a medium utility helicopter under development by Airbus Helicopters. Officially introduced at Heli-Expo in Orlando, Florida, on March 3, 2015, it is designed to replace the AS365 and EC155 models in the company’s lineup. Following its maiden test flight in June 2015, it received EASA type certification in July 2020, with initial deliveries taking place in December 2021. The invaluable feedback garnered from using these helicopters and their support systems will play a crucial role in the development of the military version, the H160M “Cheetah,” part of the Light Joint Helicopter (HIL) program, also led by the DGA. The specially configured H160 helicopters for search and rescue at sea will be gradually deployed from mid-2023 at the French Navy’s air bases in Lanvéoc-Poulmic, Brittany, Hyères, Provence, and Cherbourg airport. The upcoming delivery of the second H160 helicopter will enable the Navy to continue ongoing experiments and train future operational crews effectively.

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